By announcing his intention to resign, Silvio Berlusconi has precipitated the kind of ferment on which he thrives, and which he has used to remarkable effect through a political career riddled with allegations of corruption and sordid sex scandals, some of them leading to criminal charges. The combative and colourful Italian Prime Minister's third term has been ended, after three and a half years, by his coalition partners, the far-right Northern League, whose leader Umberto Bossi told him to resign after the government lost the lower parliamentary house vote on the 2010 public finances. The entire opposition abstained to assist the bill's passage, but that exposed cracks in Mr. Berlusconi's support; eight of his own People of Freedom (PDL) MPs voted against, so the measure got 308 votes and not the 316 needed, whereupon Mr. Bossi acted. The Prime Minister says he will step down after proposals for economic reforms get through the legislature; the process is likely to take another fortnight. The main opposition party, the Democratic Party (PD), has called for the creation of a transitional government by President Giorgio Napolitano, but the Prime Minister asserts that parties that lost the general election must not be allowed thus to gain office.

As usual with Mr. Berlusconi, however, anything could happen. He has survived 51 confidence votes in his present term, and now says one will not be needed after the budget defeat, as he plans to resign; but he may in fact decide to stay on after the reforms legislation clears parliament. Leaving office could render him liable to criminal prosecution from which he is currently immune. But it will also divert attention from his failure to improve Italy's dire economic condition; the poverty rate is above 14 per cent and unemployment among the 15-24 age-group is over 25 per cent. The eurozone's third largest economy, with debts amounting to €1.9 trillion, might well need a bailout to dwarf that of Greece. In addition, the opposition may not want office now; its MPs did not celebrate the budget vote result. While the evidence is that many voters want a reasonably competent government, , the electoral system, which Mr. Berlusconi introduced in 2005 and himself calls rubbish, makes that very unlikely; it enables a party with just one per cent vote share to topple a government, and causes permanent instability. Furthermore, the Italian centre-left is yet to find a convincing candidate. Mr. Berlusconi, then, may well remain Prime Minister. Italian voters, however, deserve better, in respect of their leaders and of the system that produces them.

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